No military parade as North Korea celebrates founder’s birth

Tens of thousands turn out in Pyongyang’s main square to enjoy light shows and art exhibitions in honour of Kim Il Sung.

Kim Jong Un in black suit waves from behind a balcony to tens of thousands of people gathered in formation in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to the crowds in Pyongyang's main square during the celebrations to mark the birth of his grandfather and the country's founder Kim Il Sung [KCNA via Reuters]

North Korea celebrated the 110th anniversary of the birth of late founder Kim Il Sung on Friday with fireworks, a procession, and an evening gala in Pyongyang’s main square, but without an expected military parade.

Nuclear-armed Pyongyang usually uses the holiday – known as the Day of the Sun – to show off its latest weaponry.

But while this year’s event follows a flurry of weapons testing – three weeks ago the country carried out its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test since 2017 – there was no sign of any parade.

Leader Kim Jong Un visited his grandfather’s mausoleum and attended a “national meeting and a public procession” in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square but gave no reported public remarks. A senior official spoke at the meeting, saying that North Korea would overcome all difficulties and always emerge victorious, state news agency KCNA reported.

State media aired live footage of an evening gala in the square after sunset on Friday, following concerts, art exhibitions, and ideological seminars.

A tank decked out with lights - a North Korean flag at its turret - at an event to mark the birth of the country's founder Kim Il Sung
North Korea staged a light show as part of its commemorations to mark the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, traditionally the country’s most important holiday [Cha Song Ho/AP Photo]

There was also a light festival in the centre of Pyongyang, with dancing fountains and decorated boats on the Taedong River, KCNA said.

The festival “artistically depicted” Kim Il Sung’s native home and “the sacred mountain of revolution, Mt Paektu,” KCNA said. Residents could take photos in front of arches lit with phrases such as ‘Pyongyang Is Best’ and ‘We Are the Happiest in the World’.

“I came to see the lighting festival with my daughter. Looking at it today, it’s really cool. The most impressive thing in particular is this one that says ‘self-reliance’,” Ri Bom Chol, a 40-year-old doctor, told an AFP news agency reporter in Pyongyang.

‘Love is forever’

Analysts, along with South Korean and US officials, had widely expected North Korea to mark the occasion with new weaponry, or even a test of the country’s banned nuclear weapons.

But there was no mention in state media of any military parade.

“The Kim regime needs more sources of national pride and legitimacy than military parades,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul said in an email. “So the public commemorations around its founder’s birthday tried to portray an economy that is not only resilient but growing, and a society that is not only united but also modern and happy.

“But this does not represent a shift away from North Korea’s military build-up. Kim Jong-un’s stated goal of deploying tactical nuclear weapons, Kim Yo-jong’s recent threats toward Seoul, and satellite imagery of tunneling activity at Punggye-ri all point to an upcoming nuclear test. Additional missile launches are also expected for honing weapons delivery systems.”

Seoul-based specialist site NK News said analysis of satellite imagery suggested that training was taking place at the Mirim military parade training base, with a few thousand troops marching in formation. Images from Planet Labs had also shown an increasing number of tyre marks around a secure garage area for heavy weapons at the site, suggesting practice drives were taking place, it added.

Experts say April 25 – the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army – is the next most likely date for the parade.

“Since the two anniversaries are just 10 days apart, it seems a bit difficult to hold a parade on both occasions,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.

A small group of North Koreans bow towards bronze-coloured statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il riding horses
People bow before the statues of late North Korean leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, during the Day of the Sun celebration on Friday [Jon Chol Jin/AP Photo]

Kim Il Sung died in 1994 but is the country’s ‘eternal president’, and his preserved body lies in state in a red-lit chamber at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on the outskirts of the capital.

North Koreans are taught from birth to revere Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, and all adults wear badges depicting one or both men.

“As the days go by the yearning for the great leader is growing,” Ri Gwang Hyok told an AFP reporter in Pyongyang as they visited statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

“Love is forever,” said 33-year-old Ri.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies